Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Playing At War

When does it become "real" to us?
War, in its many forms, is a constant and reliable source of material for games. Whether it's an "on the ground" perspective like a first-person shooter or an "eye in the sky" like a strategy or tactics game, the basic mechanics of war from past to present to future form a solid mechanical base for gameplay. It can be the individual skill of lining up a shot, parrying an attack, or sprinting across a field while under fire. It can be the management skills of maneuvering units to strike an enemy's weakness, keeping troops happy, or securing an optimal position for an upcoming battle. The act of participating in or conducting a war is a game of sorts, with rules of its own - how weapons work, how physics work, how participants are to conduct themselves, and so on. War has formed the basis of thousands of games, from Chess to Call of Duty, from Rainbow Six to Lasertag, from Command and Conquer to Paintball.

Yet at some point there must be an acknowledgment that games aren't war. It's not possible to make a game that is anywhere close to being like war; at most, you'd just get accurate physics simulators like ARMA. You cannot get an understanding of the complexities of war by playing a game because the game separates you from all the things that make war what it is. Games aren't war, and players don't want them to be war. If they wanted to be part of a war, there are plenty of actual wars available. However, a problem arises when game developers try to tell a game's story as though it was a war - as though players ought to be treating the game seriously, and learning something about war from the experience.
This was the noble, but perhaps misguided, goal of "Six Days in Fallujah", a game designed by a team that included an actual participant of the battle of Fallujah. The goal of the game was to depict a harrowing, harsh reality - a "survival horror" game, rather than an "action" game like Battlefield or Call of Duty. Players would be immersed in a highly lethal scenario where their player-character is as vulnerable as any real soldier would be. The nature of the game was meant to reflect the actual battle and teach players about the nature of war, as opposed to being a politicized, glorified shooting gallery. However, the game saw opposition (and was ultimately canceled) from groups who saw the game as exactly that: a game, not an immersive learning experience. The fear always exists that even if the game has good intentions, it can be played in a manner not supported by its concept. You'll always be able to "get frags" and "own noobs" because ultimately it is, in fact, a game. The way that the information is framed prevents players from truly understanding the experience and opens up problems related to the necessity of a game being "fun" or "amusing". Here are the things that separate games from war, and in essence explain why the former can't really be used to teach about the latter.

This would make a good ad for an MMO.
1. Games Are Voluntary
A defining trait of a game is that you choose to play it. Games are fun. Games are designed for recreation and enjoyment. Games are something that you play when you want to entertain yourself. If the game wasn't fun, you would not play it - or at least you wouldn't do it very often. War is sometimes, but not always, voluntary. Even when it is voluntary to enter military service, it is not voluntary to exit it. Being in the military is a job, a calling, or a duty, not usually a "fun activity to pass the afternoon". Even people who enjoy war and enjoy being in the military are committed to it more than gamers are simply because regardless of how they feel about it, they're still stuck in it.

What's lost in the transition between "war" and "game" is that you, as a human being, have one life. When you die, that life is over. Your experience in this world is complete, and depending on what your beliefs are about the afterlife, you may not even exist anymore. Soldiers come from all sorts of walks of life and, like any human being, have years of experience behind them, and all that can end violently, suddenly, and decisively. It can be a sniper's bullet or a random mortar or an IED, but that human being's life is now over. As a soldier, they are in a situation that they may not get out of. Everything they are ends in this war; everything is at stake for a cause that may not even be that important to them. This is something that games simply cannot convey, unless you are willing to spend a huge amount of time getting to know every single participant in the conflict as a human being. Games are about soldiers from faction x and soldiers from faction y and they might as well be henchmen in a James Bond movie.

Think about the fact that Six Days In Fallujah had to brand itself as "survival horror". Theoretically, any realistic game featuring combat would be "survival horror", and yet they're not. Games about war are "action games" or "tactics games" but almost never "survival games". Relatedly, survival games have an interesting effect based on their very premise: they're interesting and immersive until you die. This is something I've noticed in many players - once they've died the first time, there's less incentive to actually try to stay alive, and less visceral reactions to fear. Why should you? It's just a game. You might get killed and have to go back a bit. Big deal. But before you die, you're able to put that aspect out of your mind and get immersed. Of course, the problem with that in a game about modern combat is that your death will almost certainly be something you can't see or avoid, like the aforementioned snipers, IEDs and mortars. It's hard to connect to that emotionally except in a very immediate "wow, I just died and basically couldn't do anything about it" sense - a sense more useful than "ugh this game sucks and it's too hard", but a more difficult sense to consistently evoke.

As an aside, in the list of "things that are misandrist about games" (which is really more of a joke than anything), one notable inclusion is the fact that men are often "forced" to go to war while women don't have to. Barring historical games (which don't even bother to convey the reality of conscription), I actually can't think of any games where actual male-only conscription is a factor. Valyria Chronicles had conscription, but for the entire population. Most other games are about voluntary or hired soldiers, including Mount&Blade, a game that by all rights should see you calling up the sons of landowners to fulfill their duty to fight. If anyone has an actual example of a male-only conscription in a video game, please be sure to mention it in the comments.

Some aspects of war ARE like a game, to the detriment of personal responsibility.

2. Games Are Remote
It's a simple point, but it's worth mentioning: when you're playing a game, you're not there. The conditions that combat occur in are not the same as the conditions gaming occurs in. The sensory overload of a combat situation is rarely evoked in games because it would be too frustrating and disheartening to players. Instead, players are often thrown into loud, confusing situations, but are given guiding instructions and relative invulnerability to help them get through it. The stress and immediacy of a combat situation are not modeled accurately for the sake of ease of play, and this necessity of "fun" deteriorates from the game's value as a learning tool.

Even beyond this, though, there are factors that simply cannot be replicated. Things like adrenaline, defensive chemical responses, and even lack of sleep cannot be adequately modeled into the game process in a way that helps the player understand the thought processes of a soldier in the field. This is not only a problem for games, but across all mediums of understanding combat: the reality of existence "in the field" is not the same as the reality of existence in normal conditions. While this sounds like it's only making excuses for poor behaviors ("it's okay that he shot those civilians, you don't understand what it's like in the field"), this aspect is ALSO important because the weight of decisions has more impact when you're standing right there, as opposed to thousands of miles away flying a drone. This isn't just something related to war - any life-or-death situation is going to carry a weight and emotional impact that cannot be fully understood by someone who hasn't been part of it.

It's true, though, that games can be immersive, and can at least try to do something about this aspect, but ultimately it's never going to be the same. The strong emotions felt during combat - whether joy or rage or grief or terror - cannot be understood by someone who's not in that situation. A gamer and a soldier might celebrate when they've killed a foe, but for a soldier there's something more primal at work, a surge of adrenaline and fear that escalates the response beyond a simple "I did it". Even after reading dozens of autobiographies from soldiers in combat, I can't even come close to saying I understand those feelings myself, and perhaps even the soldiers themselves don't truly comprehend them. It's enough, I think, to know that there's an impassible barrier between "sitting at a computer or on a couch" and "having your life on the line" no matter what the situation is. It's the same with any traumatic event - people who say "they've been there" and reveal they've just played a game about it would not be taken seriously. You don't know until you have really been there.

This is what "enemy" boils down to.
3. Games Aren't About Human Beings
While I've already distinguished the gap between "the player" and "a soldier", this point is more about the gap between NPCs and soldiers. NPCs in games have more in common with shooting-gallery targets than real people; they're there to play a mechanical role, not to "be real". In a shooter, enemies pop up to shoot the player, and in return the player shoots them in the face. At no point is there any real potential for a reaction other than "pop up, shoot, be shot at". They don't surrender, they don't flee (though they do "tactically withdraw"), and they don't negotiate. They don't behave like human beings, who would most likely be concerned for their lives at least to some extent. While it's true that many soldiers fight to the death in war, it's ridiculous to say that all of them would, or that they would continue to assault given the near-suicidal circumstances that most enemies face in shooter games. The behavior that NPCs frequently demonstrate in games is not congruous to the idea that they're supposed to be actual people. This becomes an incredibly volatile issue when the enemies in question are real-life groups like Arabs or Russians - the idea becomes "they're not human, of course you have to kill them all".

FFT had an entire class based around
 non-lethal options and negotiation.
In some cases, games try to justify the forced bloodthirstiness of their mechanical paradigm. Whether the solution is super-hostile aliens like in "Gears of War" or robotic enemies like in "Binary Domain", some games recognize the fact that it makes no sense for human soldiers to behave like this and simply makes them "not human". In other cases, games try to make enemies more human, either through characterization or through actual mechanical changes. For example, in both "Final Fantasy Tactics" and the "Tactics Ogre" series, the option exists to recruit enemies. In "Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together", your chances of recruiting an enemy soldier on the battlefield are related to the compatibility between your alignments and the loyalty the soldier in question has to their commander. This adds a level of depth to the interaction; yes, you will in most cases be killing your enemies, but the potential exists to find a more peaceful solution as well (though telling the enemy just to leave or desert would have been nice). Stealth games like Metal Gear Solid generally offer you the ability to ignore or tranquilize enemies instead of forcing you into a lethal encounter, though the ease with which one can take down one's foes nonlethally may have the effect of rendering the lethal option as pointlessly cruel rather than unpleasantly necessary. These simple measures support the idea that your enemies are human beings - you can interact with them in the same way that you would interact with a human, which may make the (sometimes necessary) act of killing one of them more important and meaningful.

"Obviously some sort of suicide tactic"
Yet when games like Max Payne 3 try to characterize their faceless, soulless enemies as "human" or "humanized" and fail to deliver on the actual things that make someone human, then there's a problem. By rights these characters should behave like humans, but they do not. This is what is known as Ludonarrative Dissonance: the gameplay ("ludo") does not match up with the story and the setting ("narrative"). This makes the gameplay functionally useless to the story; the reality depicted by the gameplay is not the reality depicted by the story. Think of GTA4 - the careless "run over everything and shoot dozens of people" gameplay is obviously not the same as the "every death is a tragedy" story, yet the game pretends that the two are linked. This is exactly where the half-developed humanization goes: these enemies are meant to be human, and their deaths are meant to be serious like a human's death, yet they do not behave like humans. Yet war is conducted by humans against humans, and war cannot be understood through a game consisting of a human fighting targets. The empathy and understanding that are key for interpersonal relationships become useless in a game where your only option for interaction is permanently-justified murder.

It's fine, just wait for the respawn.
4. Games Lack Consequence
Even in the case that a game is immersive or has mechanics that support non-violent resolutions, it's still generally too easy to "undo" things that go wrong. That is, after all, the nature of most games - injuries can be cleaned up, mistakes can be fixed, teammates can be revived. The game must go on, and if all the pieces are broken, how can that happen? There must be some way for the game to continue being played. There must be more pieces, or the pieces that exist must be mended. Whether this manifests itself as regenerative health or infinite enemies, there is certainly a precedent for games that ignore the realities of a situation in order to deliver a more "cinematic" experience. And, of course, there is the almighty "save/load", near-total control over time itself within the constraints of the gaming experience. The coherent narrative of a game's story, even if it is vicious and realistic and grim, can be ultimately undermined by the simple fact that it is a game, and games can be negotiated with in ways that reality cannot.

In real life, there is a feeling that I think almost every person has experienced in some way. This is the experience of "this can't be undone". This is something that has such permanent consequences, and there is the immediate understanding that this will accompany you for the rest of your life. Wars, of course, provide thousands of these moments - whether it's being crippled, watching a friend die, accidentally killing a noncombatant, accidentally killing someone you were certain was armed and proved not to be...war is defined almost by its post-experience effect as it is by the actual time spent in it. Games intentionally lack such experiences. There's always some way to start over - yes, it might take a while, and choices can be given some weight, but nothing is permanent. It can't be. It's not technically feasible to do it and it's certainly not financially viable.

In a game, this is just a background.
Games don't teach responsibility. They might find ways to evoke the concept, but they don't teach it. They can't. Games are escapism - they're what you go to do in lieu of dealing with real life and real permanent consequences. You do things in a game you wouldn't do in real life because now it's okay. Again, this goes for all games, not just video games. Nobody would compare "being at war" to "playing laser tag", and yet people still try to make serious games about wars that just don't understand why their commentary is limited. Even the games that do try to be serious about things like "loss" and "death" tend to miss out on the civilian elements. The one exception I can clearly think of is Eidos' "Kane & Lynch: Dead Men", where civilians were sprinkled logically throughout the level and were highly likely to catch a random bullet as you shot at a cop or something. This reinforced the fact that Kane & Lynch was a game about terrible human beings, but even then it just didn't have any real consequences or weight to it. "Far Cry 2" was a game purportedly about helping civilians at the expense of everything else, yet there are almost no actual "civilians" in the game - it's a mostly-empty jungle populated by the occasional outpost or jeep patrol. Whether the reason is moral ("can't have the player shooting civilians when  they're supposed to be helping them") or technical is beyond my knowledge, but it certainly had an effect on the game.

While many people disliked Heavy Rain, and for some fairly good reasons, my experience playing it was marked primarily by ignorance. I played the game under the (mostly true) assumption that failure would actually result in bad things happening - the death of a character, the loss of evidence, etc. I also assumed, based on the auto-saving nature of the game, that I had one shot at this (well, at least "one shot before I'd have to start over"). As such, the decisions I made felt like they had as much weight to them as I think it's possible to give a game, and the game was designed in certain ways to attempt to model stress, fear, and even insanity. In one section, a protagonist has to chop off his own finger. Is this the right thing to do? Is it worth it? The conveyance of fear, anxiety, and pain was among the best I've seen in games (and I've seen a lot of games). Yet many people played it casually, laughing at the overwrought nature of the trial. And why shouldn't they? It's just a game.

This is an article about war, and about games, but I hope you can see that the lessons go far beyond both of those things. Experiencing anything in a diluted media format is just not going to be the same at all as experiencing it in real life. This doesn't mean that games, movies, and art shouldn't try to convey educational information through their particular medium, but it does mean that it's just not going to be totally possible. Yet to me the real lesson is this: games should either be informative, or they should be games. The bizarre hybrid of "serious" and "not-serious" ruins both elements, whether it's meant to be a fictional story or a representation of reality. People praise GTA4 because its cutscenes are serious and mature and then don't stop to include its gameplay. People praise Uncharted because its protagonist is likeable and well-written and then dodge the issue of "he's killing hundreds of men". People praise Metal Gear Solid because it tells a serious story with serious elements like the usage of technology and the nature of war and then they also laugh at it because it's a comedy game for children. At least I think it's for children, I can't imagine who else is supposed to laugh at the monkey in MGS4.

Either teach us something or give us good gameplay. If you can actually do both, great. But it's so much more likely that the conflict of interests between your different priorities - "artistic value" and "fun value", "storytelling" and "gameplay", "technical limits" and "budget limits" - is just going to make it all break down. The rules for "making a good game" and "depicting a convincing reality" are so different that you really have to ask yourself, as a developer, if it's worth it.